Darlene Moretto has always understood the dangers tow truck drivers face at accident scenes.
When she and her husband started Mario’s Towing more than 30 years ago in Kelowna, the dangers of being hit by a speeding vehicle while trying to clear a vehicle or debris on the road after an accident has occurred is something never out of mind for their drivers on a daily basis.
So the tragedy hit home that much more when she learned this week her brother-in-law, Wayne Kernachan, was killed when stuck by a vehicle while assisting a driver on Saturday, Nov 17.
Her family loss was a painful reminder that tow truck drivers are an endangered species and more needs to be done to ensure their safety.
“He was a father of three, a husband and someone I spoke with almost on a daily basis,” said Moretto of her brother-in-law, who used to work for Mario’s Towing before moving to Castlegar to start his own towing business with his son.
While the accident is still under police investigation, Moretto said Kernachan stopped on his way home from work to assist someone who disabled their vehicle after hitting a deer.
Kernachan activated his tow truck beacon lights, put on his high visibility apparel and began to remove some of the vehicle debris from the road when he was hit by a truck speeding past the accident scene.
What happened to Kernachan is not a rare occurrence in B.C., says Ken McCormack, president and CEO of the Automotive Retailers Association of B.C., which advocates on behalf of tow truck operators for road safety measures.
McCormack said two deaths and 15 other serious injuries have been inflicted on tow truck drivers in B.C. over the past decade.
“It is not a small issue and not an isolated issue. In North America, a tow truck driver is killed on the road every week,” McCormack said.
“We recently had one day in Surrey where two tow truck drivers were hit in the same day. One of them was thrown 50 feet after being hit by a truck and somehow survived fortunately. It is insane out there some days.”
He said his association has for the past five years lobbied the provincial government for tow trucks to be equipped with blue and white flashing lights in addition to amber lights to better attract driver’s attention to show caution and slow down when passing an accident scene.
He said Saskatchewan has adopted similar regulations and Alberta is in the process of legislating these changes, but B.C. has so far been reticent to make the change.
“We’ve talked to all the folks in Victoria about this, first with the Liberal government and now the NDP, but some emergency responders such as police have been reluctant to support the move because the lights are a unique identifier for their people,” McCormack said.
“But we know this has made a positive impact in other jurisdictions across Canada and the U.S. and not had a negative impact on other emergency responders.”
He said the province has previously adopted the slow down and move over campaign to encourage drivers to slow down when passing an accident scene, especially one where a tow truck driver is first on the scene and police and paramedics have not yet arrived, but the message doesn’t appear to be sinking in.
“It’s a pretty sad commentary about us as drivers,” McCormack acknowledged. “We need to do more to get that message across and we feel the blue and white flashing lights would help reduce the safety risk for tow truck drivers.”
For Moretto, who traveled with her family from Kelowna to the Kootenays commuity last weekend for Kernachan’s funeral, she hopes the loss of her brother-in-law will add some resonance to the need for additional safety measures to protect her industry.
“He was simply on his way home after a long day and did everything he could have done to protect himself,” she said.
“Close calls are a daily occurrence for tow truck drivers. The first thing that comes to mind is safety when you are at an accident scene. At the end of the day we all want to go home, we all want to be safe doing our jobs.”